Supreme Court Attacks FDCPA – Defending Pro Se in Debt Defense Cases

Defending pro se may have just become an even more important option for debt defendants.

The Supreme Court has recently damaged debt defendants’ rights with two very important decisions. These decisions attack the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). One allows debt collectors to bombard the bankruptcy courts with outdated claims. The other holds that junk debt buyers are not “debt collectors” under one important definition of the FDCPA.  Together, these rulings change the landscape of defense. One thing is clear: you need to know your rights more now than ever.  Defending pro se may be the only kind of debt defense you can get anymore.

Pro Se Defense

Let’s start with what “defending pro se” is.  Pro se means representing yourself in a lawsuit. This eliminates big legal fees, but it ALSO means taking on the burdens and risks of defending yourself. Hiring the right lawyer is the “gold standard” of defense, but hiring lawyers is expensive. Additionally, recent Supreme Court rulings will make it harder to get a debt lawyer at all. Still, in most debt cases people can handle their own defense. The law is not complicated, and debt cases are document, rather than witness, intensive. Defending pro se even has some significant advantages in the debt law context.

Who is a Debt Collector

In Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc., No. 16349 (Slip Op. 6-12-17), the Supreme Court ruled that junk debt buyers are not“debt collectors” under one provision of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). I discuss that case, its impact, and what action people need to take regarding it, in my article and video, “Who Is a Debt Collector – Supreme Court Tries to Destroy the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and what to Do about that.” In general, the effect of Santander is to make it more difficult to establish that a junk debt buyer is a debt collector, and it may signify that the Supreme Court would not let you sue junk debt buyers under the FDCPA at all.

Harder to Get a Lawyer

Santander is going to make it more difficult for you to get a lawyer to defend you in a debt case – and more expensive if you can get one. That’s because the FDCPA applies only to debt collectors and gives you certain counterclaims, and certain defenses, that make defending you easier. The FDCPA also includes a “fee-shifting” provision which allows a consumer to make a debt collector pay for most of the time a lawyer spends on a case. These things – ease of defense and a rich company to pay fees – make FDCPA cases attractive to lawyers. Take away the FDCPA, and the lawyers are going to have to charge more – a LOT more. And they simply won’t take as many cases because they’re harder. This means that debt law defendants, already drastically underrepresented, are going to find it much more difficult to hire lawyers. Defending pro se has become a much more important option.

Debt Collectors Will Run Wild

The decision in Santander threatens to neutralize the FDCPA and let junk debt buyers – who now make up the vast majority of debt collectors – run completely wild. They will be much freer to abuse, deceive, harass – in short, all the tricks that brought about the FDCPA in the first place because the laws regulating them will have been predominantly removed. At the same time it makes getting a lawyer much more difficult, the decision in Santander will likely result in a large number of new and wrong lawsuits. HOWEVER, Santander does not negate any (or very few, anyway) of your defenses in a debt law case, and it does not reduce the burden of proof for debt collectors. You can still win, in other words, but you very well may have to do it yourself.

Bankrupts Beware

Bankruptcy is one refuge debtors have from debt collectors. In general, you can file bankruptcy and force all your creditors to stop contacting you and, instead, file their claims in your bankruptcy action. In theory, the court will then either grant those claims or deny them according to what is right. The dirty little secret of bankruptcy, though, is that if claims are not disputed, they are generally granted. In bankruptcy cases brought by poor people (you can bet Donald Trump never had this problem), the lawyers representing the bankrupts have little incentive to dispute wrongful claims. There’s a U.S. trustee who is supposed to oversee the process and protect the bankrupt and legitimate creditors from bad claims, but guess what?

They usually don’t.

So bad claims get allowed. In most bankruptcies, allowing a bad claim means that it’s going to get paid (eventually) by the person filing for bankruptcy.

Junk Debt Buyers Make Things Worse

Enter the junk debt buyers. They buy LONG overdue debt – debt far beyond the statute of limitations – and file claims in bankruptcy cases. This bogs the bankruptcy courts and everyone involved down. As a practical matter this results in people paying billions to debt collectors who have no right to collect. This crushes people who declared bankruptcy and rips off legitimate creditors whose debts get paid at a lower rate.

Some debtors were suing debt collectors under the FDCPA for filing outdated claims in bankruptcy.  The FDCPA has a “fee-shifting provision,” that means consumer lawyers who win make the debt collectors pay their fees. That gave debtors’ bankruptcy lawyers at least some financial incentive to bring these claims and dispute unenforceable claims. They were doing so as part of the bankruptcy proceedings, and the debtors were also bringing suit outside of the bankruptcy context as well.

FDCPA Does Not Apply In Bankruptcy

The Supreme Court negated the FDCPA’s protection with its holding in Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348 (Slip Op. 5-15-17). In that case, the Court ruled that debt collectors could file claims in bankruptcy that they know are unenforceable in an ordinary court (and would violate the FDCPA if filed there).  For a fuller discussion of that case, look at my article and video, “Bankrupts Beware, FDCPA No Longer Applies – Opening the Floodgates to Bad Claims.”

Midland Funding means, in practical effect, that even if you’re in bankruptcy you’re going to have to know and protect your own rights. Your lawyer has LITTLE (personal) incentive to challenge bad claims, and likewise the U.S. Trustee has VERY LITTLE time (or incentive) to do it. If the court allows the claims, you will probably have to pay them in all likelihood. That means that even if you file for bankruptcy you must prepare to defend yourself against the debt collectors. You will AT LEAST need to know your rights, and you will very probably have to defend them pro se despite having a bankruptcy lawyer.

Defending Pro Se

The Supreme Court’s decisions in Henson and Santander mean debt defendants will get much less help from lawyers. These cases are still possible to defend against and win – they’re as easy as any law gets, probably. Because so many fewer defendants will fight, you will probably have even better chances of winning YOURS. It’s less profitable for debt collectors to fight now because they will have so many more easy wins. But you are more likely to have to do it yourself now than ever.

Make it hard for them.